02 February 2012

Why Are Textbooks So Hard to Read?

I went to a teacher training meeting the other day. The title of the presentation was this:
“5 Keys to Helping Students Read Difficult Texts.”
But I think we need a solution that gets at the roots of the problem:
“5 Keys to Helping Academics Stop Writing Difficult Texts.”
As Einstein allegedly said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Here are my thoughts after hearing Professor Isaacson’s presentation:

She explained that there’s a difference between reading Harry Potter and reading an econ textbook. And students who thought they were good readers still struggle in these academic settings. The problem isn’t that students are lazy, dumb, or unmotivated. It’s that they don’t know how to read. She went on to talk about how the readers need to change their reading strategies. When professors read, they’re active and focused (because they’re experts on the topics, while students aren’t). They preview the text first, never starting at the beginning. And this was the real shocker for me: She said prior knowledge is the number-one predictor of comprehension (which, in my mind, proves the point that the difficult texts are written to the wrong audience—let me explain).

The problem is with the writers, not the readers. After all, if there’s a communication gap, it’s ALWAYS the rhetor who is at fault, not the audience. (This is at the core of my writing philosophy. Am I too far afield?)

So, if it’s a common problem that student readers feel like they’re in over their heads, I see two possible explanations: Either (1) the author’s intended audience isn’t matched with the reader, that is, the reader is on a different level of understanding than the audience the author intended to write to (in short, the professor chose the wrong textbook) or (2) the author is a poor writer and communicator (in short, the professor chose the wrong textbook). Either way, I feel like the powers that be have put the blame on students. And while I agree that students are weak and imperfect, I believe the lion’s share of the guilt for this situation should be put on the shoulders of the professors and the authors of these difficult texts.

Now, I don’t mean to say that students are blameless or than they can’t do anything to improve their reading strategies. I just feel like the blame hasn’t been appropriately divvied.